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2015 State Legislative Sessions: An Update on Nationwide Juvenile Justice Reforms to Protect Youth from the Adult Criminal Justice System

Posted in Federal Update Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Nicholas Bookout, CFYJ Fellow and Carmen Daugherty, Policy Director

With the JJDPA reauthorization making it out of the Senate Judiciary, along with President Obama’s recent speech at the NAACP and subsequent prison visit, there is no question that juvenile justice reform has both the American Public and federal policymakers’ attention. While these steps towards federal juvenile justice reform are very exciting, it is also very important to acknowledge the reforms taking place nationwide in state legislatures.

This legislative session, legislation to protect youth from the adult criminal justice system was introduced in the form of 35 bills in 19 different states. To summarize the results of these bills:

  • 7 bills that the CFYJ supports passed!
  • 3 bills are still active in legislative sessions (3 in California).
  • 18 bills that were introduced but the legislative session ended before they were passed or voted down.
  • 6 bills that we supported died (5 in Florida, 1 in New York).
  • 1 bill that we opposed died (Delaware).

Very few bills were introduced that ran contrary to the movement to protect youth from the adult system. One of these few bills was introduced in Delaware. Senate Bill 12 would have required adults who possess a firearm, and were convicted of a violent crime at age 16 or 17, to receive a mandatory minimum sentence. However, this bill died in committee, signaling a victory for youth justice.

Most Recent Victories!

House Bill 3718 is an enormous victory for Illinois. Before passage of the law, children under the age of 18 can be automatically transferred to adult courts. This practice has very negatively impacted communities of color, with 99 percent of the youth arrested and transferred to adult court in Cook County between 2010 and 2012 being children of color. 90 percent of these cases were then pled guilty – often resulting in adult incarceration. However, House Bill 3718 requires a juvenile judge to review this transfer to determine the proper court for the child, taking into account the age, background, and individual circumstances of the child. With the signature of this bill, countless children would be saved from unnecessarily harsh sentences, and the physical, mental, and sexual abuse that often comes with adult incarceration as a youth.

In New Jersey, the Governor recently signed Senate Bill 2003. This bill includes numerous provisions that drastically improve juvenile justice in New Jersey. First, this bill increases the minimum age at which a youth can be tried as an adult from 14 to 15. Second, it   limits the transfer and incarceration of youth under the age of 18, instead of the current lower limit of 16, to only those committing the most serious and violent of crimes. Third, this bill makes it more difficult for youth to be transferred to adult court, as prosecutors must submit written analysis on the reasons for the transfer, which is then granted only at the discretion of a judge. Finally, this bill tightens restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for youth. These reforms would signal a positive move towards justice for New Jersey youth, while also improving physical and mental well-being.

Other Important Victories

In Louisiana, House Resolution 73 requests the Institute on Public Health and Justice to study the issue of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include seventeen-year olds. Hopefully the results of this study will yield further legislation to protect children in one of the tougher states for youth justice.

Previously, the state of Maryland authorized a district court exercising criminal jurisdiction over a juvenile to order a child be held in a juvenile facility. With the passage House Bill 618, the law now mandates that the district court, when exercising criminal jurisdiction, orders a child be held at a juvenile facility, except under a few specific circumstances (bail, no capacity, security risk). Additionally, if the district court withholds a transfer to a secure juvenile facility on the basis of the child posing a risk to his or her own safety or the safety of others, the court must state on the record the reasons for finding such a risk. Because of the recent drop in juvenile crime rates, the juvenile facilities have the ability to accommodate more children without significantly impacting their expenditures. Therefore, this bill will reduce the number of children held pre-trial in adult facilities, without imposing increasing costs on the state of Maryland.

Texas, a state surprisingly making positive strides in youth justice reform, passed two bills protecting youth. In Texas, a juvenile may be waived by a juvenile court to be tried as an adult in a criminal court. Previously, this transfer could not be appealed until after a juvenile had been convicted or deferred. With the passage of Senate Bill 888, a juvenile has the right to appeal a juvenile court order that waives exclusive jurisdiction before adjudication. This legislation also mandates that the Supreme Court take up standards to accelerate the disposition of these appeals by the appellate court or the Texas Supreme Court. These appeals may be taken by or on behalf of the child. With the post-adjudication appeal process often taking years to complete, this streamlined process increases the efficiency of appeals, potentially saving the state of Texas countless resources. Meanwhile, juveniles facing charges will encounter a more just process capable of adequately accounting for the differences between juveniles and adults.

The second bill, Senate Bill 1630, first aims to reduce the number of Texas youth held in TJJD (Texas Juvenile Justice Department) facilities, especially those far from their families and communities. To do so, they are expanding the scope of juvenile probation, with this probation serving as an alternative to incarceration for low and medium risk youth.   This bill will keep low and medium risk children in Texas closer to home, likely decreasing recidivism and providing specialized services for the needs of youth.

Finally, Utah also undertook positive youth justice reform. Previously, a Utah district court held jurisdiction over any 16 year old that committed any sort of felony. With Senate Bill 167, this jurisdiction is now limited to about ten violent felonies. In addition, when the state petitions to have a juvenile transferred to a district court under the premise of an allegation of one of these felonies, the juvenile judge may exercise judgment on the transfer. The judge can now take into consideration the interests of the minor, the ability of different facilities (both adult and juvenile) to provide rehabilitative services, and the course of action best suited to reduce the risk posed to the public. Lastly, with SB 167, juveniles may not be shackled or otherwise restrained when appearing in court. Consequently, this bill will reduce the number of youth in Utah unnecessarily tried as adults, while also providing for more humane treatment of children and safeguards to keep them out of adult facilities.

Finally, in California, there are multiple reforms taking place. The California District Court of Appeals recently upheld Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, which was approved in November 2014. As a result, non-violent, non-serious crimes in California must now be classified as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Consequently, those sentenced under previous guidelines may be re-sentenced. Such ruling allows thousands of youth previously sentenced to unusually harsh penalties to appeal these decisions and leave incarceration.

Furthermore, Senate Bill 382 passed the California Senate and Assembly, and simply awaits concurrence on amendments. If signed by the governor and enacted, this bill would allow judges to consider more comprehensive information when granting a transfer waiver. By doing so, judges will have a greater opportunity to consider the rehabilitative capacity of a youth before subjecting that individual to adult court, its more austere consequences, and potential incarceration.

The Campaign for Youth Justice is incredibly excited about the passage and progress of these bills. With each piece of legislation passed, countless youth in these states are in one form or another protected from the horrors of being incarcerated with adults as a child. More of the United States’ children are kept out of harm’s way, and given a better chance to be rehabilitated, in lieu of being subjected to inhumane punishment.

While it is encouraging to see these positive steps taken, and CFYJ commends these states and all involved for passing such legislation, there is still so much more to be done – in these states and across the nation. With a per day average of 6,000 of America’s youth spending time in adult jails or prisons, these reforms are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the need to protect our nation’s youth. Until this number is zero, we must keep fighting to have children be treated by America’s criminal justice system as just that – children. 

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